As with Timothy Dalton before him, Pierce Brosnan’s tenure as 007 was cut short by circumstances largely out of the lead actor’s control. Although Brosnan had fulfilled his contract for three films and an option on a fourth (which he did fulfil with Die Another Day), the actor was in talks for a fifth instalment, and the general consensus was that the cinema going public would like to see him return in a fifth instalment as well.
However, after those negotiations broke down, EON productions decided to cast a completely new actor in the lead role. Radical enough, you might think, but what the next film would represent is a complete reinvigoration of a series which many long term viewers were seeing as tired and over reliant on special effects and outrageous spectacle (at the expense of story, suspense and even performance). As the previous film was Die Another Day you can see where this view may have come from. For every penny Die Another Day made at the box office its critical stock seemed to plummet.
EON decided that a radical re-vamp of the whole franchise was in order. Big changes in style and direction had been implemented before, often in big ways (George Lazenby’s one and only, more romantic outing in 1969, the more ‘Americanised’ direction of the ‘70s and the increased humour of Roger Moore, the occasional return to more realistic espionage with For Your Eyes Only and the later Dalton films, and of course the change in direction for Pierce Brosnan’s introduction). However, none of these previous changes were to be as radical and as notable as the change implemented for Casino Royale, which it was announced would be a complete ‘re-boot’ of the entire series. It would even go as far as starting Bond’s story from (almost) the very beginning and this involved ditching all previous continuity. Long term fans were, as you can imagine, quite anxious.
For the twenty first official picture, EON productions cast English actor Daniel Craig, whose previous successes had included the films Tomb Raider, Layer Cake and the acclaimed BBC serial Our Friends in the North (which also featured future Doctor Who Christopher Eccleston). Physically Craig is a departure from previous Bonds, being blond and rather less suave in both appearance and manner, and certainly does not fit Ian Fleming’s physical description of the character. However, Craig’s understated menace and gruff charm suit the character well for this instalment. Whether that makes Craig a good Bond or not is debatable. He is a very good actor, but I was rarely convinced he was playing James Bond, although given that this is the character at the beginning of his career, that makes some sense. That in itself is a bold move, and will probably make a big difference to subsequent films if they carry on from where this one leaves off. Fleming wrote Bond in a rather specific way, and although actors previous to Craig had all added their own interpretation of that template, I still felt they were all playing the same character. I’m not yet convinced Craig is doing the same, and if the character has been reinvented so much we could argue it isn’t actually James Bond at all. Still, Craig is very good at what he does here, and so is the film as a whole, but I’m getting slightly ahead of myself.
Whereas Craig is the new guy, Martin Campbell returns to direct his second Bond film (his first being Goldeneye in 1995), and becomes the first returning Bond director since John Glen in the 1980s. His reputation for successfully delivering action packed films with plenty of style (including, as mentioned, Brosnan’s first Bond film and the Zorro series), made him a good choice to helm Craig’s first film.
Aside from being Craig’s debut, the film is a first in other ways, being the first serious film adaptation of Ian Fleming’s first Bond novel. The book had been adapted before, once for television in the ‘50s and very loosely in 1967 for the lavish spoof starring David Niven. The film follows Fleming’s original plot quite closely, with a few aspects updated for a modern setting. What is added to the story is welcome, and enhances the tale rather than distracting from it. Bond’s chase over a dangerous building site, his first killing and the sinking of a house in Venice are all exceptionally breath taking and well executed.
Where the film scores over recent films in the franchise is in that the story is so strong that it never runs out of inspiration until the final reel. How much this is to do with being based on Fleming’s original material is open to debate. Having slated Neal Purvis and Robert Wade’s script for Die Another Day, I have to say this is a big improvement. In this instalment Bond’s target is terrorist banker Le Chiffre (wonderfully underplayed by Mads Mikkelsen), and Bond must defeat him in a high stakes poker game at the upmarket Casino Royale in Montegro. The card game is the only point where the film looks like it may come unstuck, as these scenes often tread a fine line between realistic suspense and downright tedium. Fortunately, an attempt on Bond’s life and a brutal fight in the hotel will help to wake up any struggling viewers. And brutal this film is, more so than any other in the Bond series, with a car crash and torture scene that will have you holding the sofa cushion over your eyes.
Craig is perfect for this film, and manages to convey the charming and cold hearted attributes of Fleming’s literary Bond. Whether he develops into a more sophisticated character remains to be seen. But I can’t imagine Roger Moore’s Bond being beaten, tortured and poisoned quite as rigorously as this and coming out the other side in one piece. The rest of the cast are also on equally good form, with Eva Green‘s turn as Vespa Lynd one of the most memorable Bond girls in years, with a polished and icy charm to perfectly complement Craig’s Bond. There is an added emotional aspect here as well, as Bond falls in love and ultimately loses Vespa, directly shaping his identity and destiny. Also reintroduced to the franchise is Bond’s CIA contact and friend Felix Leiter (last seen in ’89’s Licence to kill), played this time by Jeffrey Wright as a far more cynical character. Judi Dench is as good as ever in her role as ‘M’, but it’s worth considering that she is effectively playing a different character here than in the Brosnan films (with this being a fresh continuity). In some ways that makes it especially odd that Dench was asked to reprise the role, as obvious comparisons will be made with the previous films. Almost, but not quite as confusing, as if they’d retained Brosnan as Bond put asked us to pretend his previous four adventures never happened. A minor quibble, but worth a mention I feel.
Other strong points include David Arnold’s music score, which is perhaps his best for the series, with shades of John Barry’s On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (which interestingly is also a film that involved a more emotionally vulnerable 007, who falls in love and loses the girl). The title song “You know my name”, by Chris Cornell, is also a welcome ‘grower’, and is integrated into the main score very well. Add the brilliant playing card themed title sequence and you have a very strong opening identity for the picture.
Casino Royale is a terrific film then, even if it is a bit too long, and Daniel Craig makes a terrific lead. But neither sits comfortably with what has gone before. I’m still not sure if that is a bad thing or not. The absence of familiar elements such as the usual gun-barrel sequence, extensive gadgets, ‘Q’ or Moneypenny may be off putting for some, but Bond is more than just a few clichés. Besides, watching Casino Royale with too many pre-conditions will probably prevent you from enjoying what is actually a very good film. It has all the elements of a Bond film, but the formula is executed so differently that it’s difficult to compare with anything prior, and to enjoy it you may be best not trying. This is not family entertainment either, and is a more mature film than the series has been known for. It’s not one for the younger audience, as at times it’s simply quite fierce and bloody.
As an example of how to reinvigorate a potentially tired franchise, Casino Royale is almost faultless. How it will affect the future style and content of the series is another matter. There has been a feeling that EON productions are trying too hard to compete with the “Bourne” series of films and that is causing the Bond series to lose its distinctive style. Also, while a ‘one shot’ looking back at James Bond’s early career may be a good idea in the context of this film, I’m sure most cinema audiences will want the more seasoned agent back on their screens with many of the trademark pieces put back in place. But as it stands, as a film in its own right, Casino Royale is a brilliantly realised and stylish thriller for a modern audience.